Operations was in a state of agitation that Madeline had never been observed before this, the third murder to actually occur within the secure confines of Section One in less than 48 hours. The two others, LaFontaine and Coriascue, made a total five deaths of high level Section One operatives. It was an unthinkable circumstance, and the Agency would be intervening in a most unpleasant way, if they did not find murderer soon.
Dr. Lopez arrived only moments after the initial group with Hector scurrying behind her carrying his ubiquitous evidence case. "Everyone, except O'Brian and Hector, out of this scene," Lopez demanded. "Where are your brains, Mr. O'Brian? Have you forgotten how to maintain a murder scene? Do you remember a certain famous case in LA--contaminated evidence, poor chain of evidence--sound familiar?"
If Lopez had been a man, Marco would have cheerfully decked her. Instead he contented himself with politely ushering Operations and Madeline out of the room, but his face was flushed, his back rigid, and the muscle spasm in his jaw broadcast his anger to all.
Operations and Madeline joined Nikita, who had remained in the hallway. Nikita leaned against the wall and took a deep breath as she watched Operations pace and smoke.
Madeline was the first to speak, "Nikita, why are you still here? I thought you would have left hours ago."
"I was on my way home, when I heard the commotion, so I followed.
I guess going home is out of the question now?" she asked, already knowing
Madeline smiled, "Yes, but I'm beginning to wonder if maybe ...."
"No, Madeline, they won't be safer outside Section," Operations interjected. "He doesn't seem to have any problem striking outside the confines of Section one. Our surveillance is more concentrated here. There would be too many variables outside. Close Quarters Standby is re-instituted for the duration of this situation and will not be rescinded for any reason. Have Birkoff call everybody in. I mean everybody."
Madeline walked to the nearest emergency call and relayed Operations instructions. "Birkoff, do we know who among the C5's, is still here? All right, make sure they're notified." To Operations, who gave her a questioning look, she said, "Michael and Sylvia are the only ones not in Section. They've gone out to dinner. The others are here."
Operations raised an eyebrow as he said, "Michael and Sylvia are out to dinner. How nice for them." He looked at Nikita as if to say, there you go. You'll never be the only woman in his life. He doubted that Nikita knew of Damico's preferences yet and couldn't resist needling her insecurities. Any opportunity to drive a wedge between Nikita and his best Class 5 operative was not to be overlooked.
Nikita smiled and shrugged to show Operations that she not worried about Michael's having dinner with Sylvia. She turned to leave, but favored Operations with a sly wink as she left, and his look of slight outrage was her reward.
Madeline gave Operations a genuine smile. Nikita had a certain way about her that Madeline could appreciate; that is, when she wasn't trying to manipulate Nikita's behavior for a mission profile.
Inside LeBlanc's stand-by quarters, Lopez and O'Brian were nearing a stand-off. Marco's raised voice echoed , "Dr. Lopez, if you would just take the liver temperature and get the hell out of my way, I would be happy to get on with this murder investigation. ‘They' weren't the only ones in the way around here."
"Mr. O'Brian, as the forensic pathologist, I have the authority to go wherever and do whatever I deem necessary. Now you and Hector collect any evidence, and I will examine the body. Now ‘you' get out of my way!" Mandelita Lopez was furious with the little upstart ex-policeman, who had done who knew what in order to be recruited by Section One. Hector was no better, but at least he was quiet and knew his place, and did not get on her nerves like O'Brian did.
"O'Brian," Hector said from his position bending over the body. "The garrote is very imbedded. Whoever did this really knew his business."
"No, sh@#, Sherlock!" O'Brian said. "This killer has made fools out of us so far. I'd say he knows his business all right. I'd say he's damn talented."
The contrast between Michael at dinner and Michael as he and Sylvia returned to Section was startling. At dinner, the longer Michael talked about Nikita the more relaxed he had become. His face had lost its taut, emotionless look. While he had not appeared happy, the pain and regret that Sylvia had seen were better than the blank stare he hadperfected for use around Section One. He had resorted to gesturing with hands as he had told her about his history with Nikita. His body language identified him as a Frenchman without his needing to speak.
Now Michael had lost the volubility and expressiveness he had previously shown. His back was rigid and his facial expression intent as he drove them quickly along the streets. Only his leather-gloved hands as they touched and maneuvered the steering wheel with expert economy, gave any indication that he was not a machine, but a living, breathing sensual man.
While she had not seen Michael in years, Sylvia felt comfortable riding with him in silence. Neither phone call had told them who had been murdered, only, "There's been another. Come in."
While Michael's exterior showed little emotion, his mind was tortured. While only C5 operatives had been targeted, so far, what if....the unthinkable. Nikita had found one of the bodies, what if.... Michael could not bear the thought that Nikita might be a target as well. He knew he could not, no would not, withstand another loss in his life. His plans and even ‘hopes' for the future all revolved around Nikita. If she were gone, he would follow her. He would not live split in two forever. Taking Operations' place would never compensate for losing his Nikita.
Power in Section One meant two things to Michael. Personally, of course, it meant being with Nikita without interference or manipulation. Professionally, it meant having control over Section One's agenda; perhaps, even injecting a little humanity into the organization, whenever possible. Michael had an idea that Operations' agenda exceeded the original intent of Section One's goals. Michael's private resources had fed him bits of intel over the years that like pieces of a puzzle were beginning to form a whole picture that was alarming.
Sylvia's voice startled him from his tortured reverie. "Michael, I'm sure Nikita is all right," she said softly as she placed her hand on his arm.
"Thank you," he paused. "For tonight, I mean. It doesn't change the circumstances, but I ‘feel' better somehow." He gave a Gallic shrug.
"Michael, have you ever expressed the depth of your feelings to Nikita, like you did to me tonight?"
"No," was his hoarse reply.
"Michael! Why on earth not? You must be driving her crazy." She turned to look at her old friend. How could men be so obtuse, she wondered. Women at least knew how to communicate.
"There are factors that I cannot reveal. It's more complicated than I can say. It would be unfair to her to express my feelings and not be able to assure her that we will ever be together."
"Hmm. Well, I won't pry any further, but I think you may be making a big mistake. What if your ‘right' time doesn't ever come? Maybe you should take whatever you can have now."
Michael glanced at her briefly, taking his eyes away from the road, "Don't you think I torture myself with those thoughts everyday? Every time I see her walking down a hall, every time I hear her name mentioned, my heart fills with longing. Instead, I have to bury those emotions, those things that make me a man, they have no place in Section."
"Michael, eyes back on the road! But continue," she pleaded.
Michael's voice grew hoarse with emotion, "Instead of taking her in my arms, I have to watch her go on missions, from which she might not return. Instead of giving her the love she needs, I am unable to look into her eyes and have to walk away. Everyday I go through this. Everyday I see her retreat from me a little more. I know I pain her by my silence, but it pains me as well."
Sylvia could see a single drop of moisture as it glistened down his cheek. Michael blinked, but no more tears dared to course down his handsome face. It was unthinkable that Michael the machine would cry.
He sat at his desk, going over the files of the remaining C5 operatives, as well as those of any operative who might have come in contact with them. The files included Madeline's secret "psych" files. His vision blurred and he caught his breath as read Nikita's file. He had seen an abbreviated file on her during the outside serial killer investigation, but once he had seen that she has supposedly committed suicide in prison, he had become side-tracked. Now he saw the details, which included the newspaper stories of a street kid who killed a policeman in an alley, in another city. Section One's resources certainly had a long reach when it came to recruiting.
Marco pondered, Marcus Richmond had been killed with a knife, but Nikita had been found with no blood on her, and it was only minutes after he had been killed. He decided he would look further into Nikita's whereabouts during the other murders. For the first murder Coriascue, she was eliminated because she was documented to be right here in Section. Terrence Carrey the second was a possibility because, she had provided an alibi for Michael, thereby providing one for herself. Michael was still a suspect in Marco's mind for Carrey's death. Perhaps, they had worked together.
Judith LaFontaine's death captured on surveillance camera as it happened ruled out both Michael and Nikita. Michael was in his SBQ, and Nikita was again documented to be in Section One, at which time she was busy giving Michael an alibi.
Nikita was in Section at the time of Pierre LeBlanc's death, but his exact time of death had not been determined yet. Michael had been out to dinner with Damico one of the other C5 operatives. Damn! This was getting to be complicated. Marco decided to make a chart. He knew he could do it in the computer, but he still preferred to have the chart in his hands. He drew grids: across the horizontal axis he placed the names of the victims and their approximate times of death; on the vertical axis he placed the names of all the operatives being investigated. Michael was the first name followed closely by Nikita's. Marco left room to add possible motives. It takes all three he reminded himself to make a case for murder: method, motive and opportunity. Although Marco doubted that any of these cases would ever see the light of a formal courtroom, he was sure that justice would be swift and sure once the perpetrator was identified.
Marco accessed the next file. Terrence ‘Harikari' Carrey had been a reclusive man without outside relationships and few inside ones. Marco skimmed his file quickly: Ex-CIA, with a ruthless style, he had not ingratiated himself to many people, except Operations. Marco considered that there might be a power struggle to replace the current Operations. From what he had observed in his year in Section, Michael and Carrey were both front-runners for that spot. What if Michael was trying to eliminate his competition. There was documentation from his files that Birkoff had provided, that Michael had accessed intel on all the C5 operatives the day before Carrey's murder. Only Coriascue's death occurred before Michael's sudden interest in his fellow C5's.
Judith LaFontaine's file contained the names of previous lovers, especially the name of the one that had left her apartment not five minutes before she had been dispatched by a shotgun blast. It also contained some very interesting Section names, who had been her lovers. Terrence Carrey had been one of them, as had Michael shortly after his probation period had ended. Carrey's involvement with LaFontaine, if one could ever say that either of them became ‘involved,' was much more recent. Still Michael's name kept popping up, he thought as he made a note on the chart.
Hmm. Desmond Black's involvements were legendary in Section. Good-natured and handsome he had never lacked for company of the opposite sex, inside or outside Section One. After recruitment, he had Valentine Op. training as well, but his innate intelligence and abilities took him beyond this role to C5 status. Ahh, Black was admitted to be the father of Terri's baby. Marco had been shocked when he had heard the long time operative had tried to escape Section by betraying a mission. She was in detention for the duration of her pregnancy. Everyone assumed she would be canceled after the birth. And Nikita is a friend of Terri's. Michael and Nikita's names are going to be all over this chart, he mused.
Pierre LeBlanc was the greatest unknown quantity in this mixed-up hash of a case. He was not a local C5, but one of the international ones, however, he had managed to wind up as dead as the others. French Pierre LeBlanc, while stereotypically flirtatious, had been circumspect in his affairs. He had been involved with a profiler for several years, and the relationship was a stable one that threatened neither operative's position. Reportedly, he had been seen to ask the Italian C5 Damico out to dinner, but she had ended by going to dinner with Michael. Wonder what Nikita thought about that? Maybe Damico better be watching ‘her' back. Nikita might just plant one of those sexy pumps up Damico's behind.
Marco rubbed his eyes, barely able to keep them open. Multiple cups of coffee were no longer doing the trick. He had to have some sleep. Marco reclined in his chair for a moment--just to rest his eyes, and he was deep in sleep in seconds with the computer files still open.
Look at this idiot, asleep with the computer
files open. He wouldn't be able to find his butt with both hands
tied behind him. I'm taking a chance, but I love to take chances.
I'll copy these files while this little fellow sleeps, and I'll know
what I need to know to eliminate my next victim.
Nikita's standby quarters were stark and contained only the bare necessities--a bed, chair, table, a shower and tiny refrigerator. She spent as little time there as possible, but now it seemed as if it might be a long time before she saw her apartment again. She tossed and turned in the narrow bed, unable to sleep. The white sheets were already rumpled, in spite of the fact that she had made the effort to straighten them more than once. She desperately wanted to go to Michael, but she resisted the impulse.
It was late, and the rhythm of Section One was altered at this time of night, and Nikita could feel it like her own heartbeat. The murders had caused the tension level to increase exponentially as each new one was discovered, and Nikita was not immune to these influences. She had locked her door and double-checked it several times, not trusting her memory. She had overheard her fellow operatives speak of doubling up in order not to be alone, and she didn't blame them. Operatives were going armed, and Operations had allowed it.
Three rapid knocks at her door startled her. With slow, careful movements born of caution, Nikita drew her 9mm weapon from its place beneath her pillow and walked to the door and listened.
"Nikita?" said Michael.
Nikita quickly opened the door and saw Michael and Sylvia standing there. "We just came from another briefing. Operations doesn't want anyone to be alone at any time. Sylvia needs to bunk with you. Materiel will be bringing in another bed. I hope you don't mind?" Michael's eyes begged her to be reasonable and not make a scene. "I know it's not an ideal situation, but it's the best we can do for both of you."
"Sure, come on in, Sylvia," Nikita smiled and motioned her into the room.
Michael stood in quiet surprise, for he had expected some kind of protest from Nikita. "Thank you, Nikita. Sylvia was an old friend of Simone's, and mine," he added softly.
"Nikita beamed her brightest smile at Michael, "I know, Michael.
It's all right, really." Michael looked at her in wonderment.
His eyes softened as he caressed her cheek.
Sylvia laughed and asked, "Would you two like a moment of privacy?"
The left corner of Michael's mouth twitched as he said. "More than a moment, but don't leave." Michael took Nikita by the elbow and guided her to the far side of the room. He looked into her surprised eyes. "Don't open this door for anyone, but me." He tenderly took her face in his hands, brushed back a lock of blonde hair and kissed her on the forehead. He pulled her close to him and held her as if he never wanted to let her go.
"Michael, we'll be fine. Thank you for ...." Nikita shook her head, for she didn't know how to finish. She had felt his heart's rapid beat as he had held her. She had felt his love. For now, that was enough.
They were interrupted by Deeson and Burkhart from Materiel bringing a second
bed into the room. As soon as the bed had been adjusted, they left
since this was happening all over the place.
Michael reiterated his instructions, "Don't open this door for anyone but me."
"We'll be fine, Michael," Nikita and Sylvia said simultaneously.
"I know. I just don't want to risk either of you," Michael said as he turned to leave the room.
"Hey, Mikey," Sylvia called to his retreating back. "Who are ‘you' bunking with tonight?"
"Operations," was his flat response. The two women burst into fits
of giggling that followed him down the hall.
After Michael left Nikita and Sylvia, he climbed two levels and walked down a twisting hall to its end. After Michael entered his I.D. code, he heard a corresponding beep that signified he was allowed entry. The door opened with a smooth, silent slide.
Michael stepped into Operations standby quarters, which were quite elaborate compared to the standard SBQ's. Each level operative up through Class four had the same spartan scheme, Class five's like Michael had a few more amenities, but little extra space. Operations' quarters, however were more like an apartment, since his presence or Madeline's was required at all times. Michael noted a sophisticated computer systems that comprised an entire wall and masqueraded as an entertainment center. Soft indirect lighting, taupe walls, pristine, white woodwork, comfortable tapestry covered furniture and a large oriental rug were in complete contrast to anything Michael had ever seen inside Section One.
Michael took it as a note of trust that Operations had offered to share quarters with him. It was a relief to know that he was no longer suspected in Carrey's death, at least not by Operations. He placed his small valise on the soft, luxurious carpet.
Operations was sitting at the computer system speaking to an mpeg image of George at the Agency. He acknowledged Michael's presence by a distracted wave of his hand. "Yes, George, security is very tight. We've instituted measures to protect the remaining C5 operatives, as well as the rest of our operatives. Whoever is doing this, might start on the lower levels if only the C5's are secured. No, I don't think we need a team from the Agency. We already have your Dr. Lopez, plus our own internal investigation staff. Everything is proceeding at a rapid pace. Yes, all our missions have been farmed out to the other Sections. We are in stand-by, shut-down mode." Operations voice grew louder, "No, absolutely not. That will NOT be necessary!"
Throughout this exchange, Michael stood silently with his hands folded in front of him, wondering what George's last suggestion had been. He had never been allowed access to Operations' sanctum sanctorum before this. The annoying odor of Operations' cheroot hung in the air. Michael, however, had been in worse surroundings--sewers and a cage, to name a couple; so a little second-hand smoke probably would do him little additional harm.
Operations disconnected the connection with an abrupt sound of disgust. He turned and looked at Michael for the first time since C5 operative had entered. "You can have the sofa. I can vouch that it's quite comfortable, since I've had a nap or two on it. The bath is down the hall on the left."
Michael said, "Thank you. I was surprised that you wanted me here, when only this morning you had me confined to my quarters."
Operations gave Michael a wry smile, "Knee-jerk reaction, I suppose. Michael, you have always been my most trusted operative. That's why your here. That call was from George, and they are actually considering an End Game procedure to eliminate Section One, as if we were contaminated with another lethal bacteria, IF we don't find the killer in our presence."
"Seems a little radical," Michael responded. Radical, he thought. Wipe out hundreds of trained operatives, not to mention a billion dollar operation. He grew more desperate to access the disc that Birkoff had given him.
Operations sighed, "It's beginning to seem to me as if the Agency is looking for any excuse to take over or eliminate Section One. They think we're a little too powerful and independent in the use of that power." Operations shook his head and said with a ironic grin, "I don't know where they would get an idea like that, do you?"
"No," Michael said with his usual stoic demeanor. Just because you're a power hungry egomaniac, I can't imagine where anyone would get that idea, he wisely thought to himself.
"Well, settle in, Michael. It's already very late, and I'm going to bed for a couple of hours sleep. I suggest you do the same." Operations walked down the short hall, opened a closet door and returned with bed linens which he tossed on the sofa.
"Yes, thank you. I will." Michael felt uncomfortable. He was not on his own turf, so to speak. Michael took his valise toward the hall bath to change. He saw his tired image in the mirror. Red-veined eyes and dark circles were the first clue that he needed a couple of hours of sleep himself.
Michael stripped down to his black silk boxers and tee shirt, and hung up his change of clothes for the next day. He returned to the living room and with his usual economy of motion transformed the sofa into a bed. He threw himself on the sofa and tried to relax. Three deep breaths and Michael was asleep.
Only fifteen minutes after falling asleep, Michael jumped as he was awakened by a sudden sound. Michael pulled his weapon from beneath the pillow and slid his feet to the floor. He sat there waiting for a repetition of the sound. He did not have to wait long. Again it sounded, and it was coming from the wall behind the sofa--Operations bedroom.
Operations was snoring. First there was a gasp, followed by another, then silence. Next there was a long indrawn breath that was raucous and loud, followed more gasps.
Merde! Michael thought, I cannot sleep if I have to listen to this. Michael placed his pillow over his head to try to muffle the sounds. It was then that Michael noticed that the wall behind the sofa vibrated in rhythm with the sounds emanating from Operations' naso-oropharynx. All the sounds stopped and Michael started to relax again, when they promptly resumed after an approximate thirty second absence. Michael decided that Operations must have sleep apnea, and he remembered reading that it could even cause brain damage. Hmm.
Michael wondered if he should go tap Operations on the shoulder to get him to turn over, or whatever one was supposed to do in cases like this. He supposed that would more than likely get him shot on the spot, no questions asked.
After another thirty minutes of listening to Operations' gasp, buzz and fart, Michael was ready to put a pillow over Operations' head and put him out of his misery. Then as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. Michael supposed that Operations had changed positions in his sleep and temporarily corrected the problem. Michael quickly snuggled his pillow and was seconds from falling asleep, when Operations began talking.
At first it was an indistinguishable murmur, but it became louder until Michael could hear quite clearly, "Madeline, oh, Madeline. Yes, yes, I have been a bad boy. I know. Punish me, Yes. Madeline."
"Aaarrhh!" Michael groaned as once more he put his pillow over his head
and tried once more to sleep.
After Michael made his exit to bunk with Operations, Nikita and Sylvia continued to giggle. Once the image of Michael and Operations spending the night together faded, they assessed each other, as women often do. Nikita was the first to speak. "I'm sorry I was such a witch before, I just...." Nikita still cringed as she thought of how awkward and pathetic she must have appeared to Michael and Sylvia earlier in the evening.
Sylvia finished her sentence for her. "Had a touch of the green-eyed monster when you saw the green-eyed angel leaving with me. Perfectly understandable, Nikita, but you have absolutely nothing to fear from me. Please believe me. Michael's not my type." Sylvia laughed and wondered how much to reveal to Nikita.
Nikita solved Sylvia's dilemma as she cleared her throat and said, "Yes, I understand that ‘is' the case. I don't know what gets into me sometimes. I don't have any claim on Michael. We're not really involved, you know." Nikita couldn't believe she was telling this to Sylvia, who was a stranger. "I mean, we've been ‘close' a few times, but ..." Again Nikita was at a loss for words and shrugged her broad shoulders.
This time Sylvia did not help Nikita finish her sentence. She simply smiled and continued to observe Nikita's stammering. Finally Sylvia said, "Maybe it depends on how one defines ‘involvement,' Nikita. How does Michael feel?"
Nikita sat on the side of her bed and ran her hands through her long blonde hair. "Besides ‘conflicted?'" she asked. "I don't really know. There things that prevent him sharing his feelings with me. Right now, I take whatever Michael is willing to give me. I know that sounds pathetic and unliberated, but I can't seem to find the will to do anything else." Nikita remembered her promise to Michael the night before, ‘No expectations, no disappointments,' but it was easier said than done.
Sylvia, who didn't feel it was her place to reveal to Nikita the depth of Michael's feelings, felt great empathy for the two lovers. The words would mean nothing unless they came from Michael himself, but she could not resist hugging Nikita and telling her. "Don't give up on him, Nikita. There's always a chance Michael will be able to arrange something."
Nikita gave a rueful smile and said, "Maybe."
Sylvia decided the conversation had become far too serious and asked Nikita, "So, if Michael is bunking with Operations, who is the fair Madeline bunking with? Any ideas?"
Nikita giggled again, "Well, word has it that some Valentine Op. by the name of Russell has the inside track with ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci.' I don't see anything to him myself, but a lot of ops are really hot for him."
"Well, Nikita, after all, you've had Michael. Who could compare with him?"
Nikita had the grace to blush as she thought, who could compare with him, indeed. No man on the planet that she'd ever seen could hold a candle to the elegant and sensual Michael Samuelle. "Right," Nikita sighed as she lay down and pulled the rumpled sheet over her long legs. Nikita punched her pillow and snuggled it close, as her eyelids grew heavy.
The last thing Sylvia heard from Nikita was another, "Right." Sylvia reclined on her own pillow and wondered if the Michael and Nikita would ever be able to be together. The odds were not in their favor.
On to Part IX